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First Days In America: Basketball Coach Dimitrios Kyriakou

Illustrated by Yunji Dai
Illustrated by Yunji Dai

Dimitrios Kyriakou had a successful career coaching professional basketball in Greece, but he always dreamed of coaching in the United States. It was a dream that, ultimately, didn’t work out. Today, we share his story as part of our series called “First Days In America.”

Dimitrios Kyriakou fell in love with basketball at 13, an age he claims is old by Greek standards. “I was very fast,” said Kyriakou. “I could jump very high with being a short guy.”

At age 21, he coached his first game. He said the cheering crowd ignited his adrenaline. He knew he’d found his passion.

In 1988, Kyriakou arrived in New York City from Thessaloniki, Greece. Initially drawn to the merit-based ideology of the United States, he began to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Pace University in Manhattan. On his first night in his new apartment near Times Square, he woke up to the sound of gunshots and police sirens. He described his new home as a jungle--unfamiliar and hectic.

“It was kind of a rough impression,” said Kyriakou.

Kyriakou’s initial perception of New York quickly changed after he attended his first basketball game at Madison Square Garden. He walked in excited to see the New York Knicks play the Philadelphia 76ers. He still remembers Philadelphia’s star player at the time, Charles Barkley, playing a phenomenal game. Barkley scored 43 points, beating the Knicks.

“I still have the New York Knicks in my heart. You know it's part of me,” said Kyriakou.

After a year and a half abroad in the U.S., Kyriakou was forced to go back to Greece for mandatory military service. Following his service in the Greek military, he then became a project manager for a multinational company. But Kyriakou said he quickly realized he couldn’t give up his dream of becoming a professional basketball coach.

Coach Dimitrios Kyriakou celebrates a victory surrounded by members of his former basketball team. He coached several teams that produced National Basketball League Players.
Credit Courtesy of Dimitrios Kyriakou
Coach Dimitrios Kyriakou celebrates a victory surrounded by members of his former basketball team. He coached several teams that produced National Basketball League Players.

In Europe, he established a successful career coaching several basketball teams, including the professional Greek team, Aris Thessaloniki.

According to Kyriakou, the coaching style in Europe is different from the United States. Kyriakou attributes these differences to the level of physical ability by American players.

Kyriakou said most European players aren’t as tall as American players. According to Kyriakou, to get around this physical disadvantage, European coaches tend to focus on strategy. They often develop detailed plays on the court.

“You're tall, handsome and fast, and I'm short, fat and ugly,” said Kyriakou. 

“The only way I can stop you is with detail.”

For decades, Kyriakou bounced back and forth between coaching basketball in Europe and pursuing higher education in the U.S. He tried to coach professionally while in the states but the merit-based ideology he seeked in America faded away as his international qualifications were routinely disregarded.

“Wherever I go, I hear the same thing,” said Kyriakou. “It's not what you know or how well you know it. It's who you know.”

Credit Emily MacDiarmid
Dimitrios Kyriakou, pictured in the E.L. Weigand Fitness Center, said if he was still in Greece today, he would probably be a head coach for a professional team.

According to Kyriakou, the U.S. basketball system is not open to foreign coaches, especially in collegiate basketball. A 2018 diversity report from the National Collegiate Athletic Association showed that out of 1,084 men’s basketball coaches, only two were foreign.

While Kyriakou faced exclusion from coaching in America, he ultimately decided to put his dream on hold in order to provide more opportunities for his family in the United States. A PhD program in educational leadership at the University of Nevada, Reno allowed him to move his family from Greece in 2016.

“That was my dream, to have them live the American experience,” said Kyriakou.

But, Kyriakou hasn’t completely given up his dream to coach in the U.S. After finishing his PhD, he aims to find a career in coaching. He believes the skills he’s gathered over the past few decades will add value to the American basketball system.

“What is next for me?” asked Kyriakou. “I don’t really know. Honestly, I’m expecting life to show me the way.”

This story was produced by Emily MacDiarmid a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism who participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which mentors student reporters.

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